Lotto fever runs rampant as Mega Millions jackpot soars — but the odds aren’t exactly in your favor

Here and Now

$640 million.

That’s a lot of dough. It’s also the object of a great deal of imagination this week. Friday night, the Mega Millions lottery drawing will be held to give away the largest lottery prize ever. As of Friday afternoon it stood at $640 million, after record breaking sales pushed the prize up from $540 million.

In Texas, according to reports, over lunch time tickets were selling at the rate of more than 28,000 per minute. The tickets are being sold in 42 U.S. states and the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands.

But the only way that jackpot got so big was because no one has won since Jan. 24. And that’s due in no small part to the odds of winning. According to the lottery, the odds of hitting the jackpot on a Mega Millions play is 1 in 176 million. That means you’re much more likely to die in a car accident (odds of 1 in 6,700, according to a Harvard research center), but much less likely to randomly fill out a perfectly correct NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket (odds of 1 in 9,223,302,036,854,775,808 according to DePaul University Professor Jeff Bergen), and even if you know something about basketball, your odds are still probably only 1 in 128 billion, Bergen said.

So, we’re saying there’s a chance. But not much of one.

Jordan Ellenberg, University of Wisconsin professor and author of the upcoming book “How Not To Be Wrong,” hasn’t purchased a ticket for this drawing. But he says the decision whether to purchase has less to do with the odds (which are very, very unlikely for each and every one of you) and more to do with psychology.

“From the point of a view of a an individual person, that’s basically zero. From the point of the view of the lottery, it’s not zero at all. It’s actually quite likely that somebody’s going to win tonight,” Ellenberg said.

Winning means picking six numbers correctly, five from a pool of one to 56 and one from a pool of one to 46.

Ellenberg said your odds of selecting a single right number are actually pretty good. Give chances out of a pool of 56, about one in 10. But your odds keep going down the further you go.

“There’s no strategy for increasing your chances that your number is going to be a winner,” Ellenberg said. “The good news is, that’s not the only thing that matters. There’s going to be so many people playing, I’ve heard upwards of 400 million tickets, not only does that make it very likely that someone is going to win tonight, it makes it very likely more than one person is going to win.”

So, what you can do, is increase your odds of winning alone by picking numbers that people are unlikely to pick. An example, he said, is to pick numbers above 31 — because people like to play their birthdays. And the longest month has just 31 days.

“Apparently picking 1-2-3-4-5-6 is pretty popular. So I wouldn’t recommend doing that, because if you do do that and it wins, you’re probably going to have to share the prize with a lot of people,” Ellenberg said.

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